Bottled water expert calls on feds to change labeling laws to protect springs

“The only thing that has matched the explosion of bottled water consumption is the backlash against it,” says Noah Hall.

Noah Hall
Hall teaches law at Wayne State University and the University of Michigan. He has testified before Congress regarding bottled water (pdf) and has represented environmental groups in Michigan in litigation against Nestle.

Still, in his view, Nestle is not really the problem. Neither is bottled water per se. He says that when Nestle taps into a spring, say on the Arkansas River in Colorado, it is just doing what corporations do — seeking to maximize sales and profits.

If there is a problem with bottled water, and he thinks there is, that problem lies more with the United States Food and Drug Administration than it does with any one company.

Among the big three bottled water companies — Nestle, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo — Nestle is alone in having carved out a substantial niche as the purveyor of spring water. Coke and Pepsi waters — Dasani and Aquafina — make no claims to being spring water. Many of Nestle’s top brands do, including Arrowhead, which includes water from the Arkansas basin.

Hall says the FDA’s rules allowing bottled water companies to name the source of the water, and to include the words “spring water” on labels, puts pressure on Nestle and other companies to find, acquire and bottle spring water.

“If I were making policy,” he says, “I would get rid of the designation of spring water on bottled water labels. It doesn’t inform the consumer and it puts tremendous pressure on small vulnerable springs. It would be better for everyone if bottled water was taken from deep acquifers that are not connected to springs.”

Instead of naming the source, he says, labels should name the contents — i.e. any chemicals or pollutants found in the water. “Labels should be silent as to the origin. That information is misleading anyway,” he says.

He says he has had discussions with Nestle and that he thinks Nestle might agree to the changes. “It would be better for them too,” he says. Because they can call bottled water spring water and because that is their niche, he says, they are essentially forced by the market to continually look for new sources and to put up with the kind of media and public grief that comes with bottling spring water, often from environmentally sensitive areas.

If that option was taken away by the FDA, he says, the company would no longer be incented to bottle spring water and could instead bottle water from municipal sources or from deep wells.

Hall, who says he has never purchased a bottle of water in his life, says agriculture poses a far bigger threat to worldwide water supplies than does bottled water. Bottled water is seen as the enemy of the environment because “it is very visible and tangible. Bottled water is an in-your-face example of water privatization and commoditization. It is extremely wasteful and energy intensive, but from an environmental point of view it just isn’t that big a deal.”

“I don’t think we should ban bottled water, but we might want to look at banning (some of the plastics) that are used to make the bottles,” he says.

Besides the depletion of vulnerable springs and the manufacture and disposal of harmful plastics, Hall says the other troubling issue with bottled water is the globalization and privatization of something that used to be considered a public resource.

His paper (pdf), “Protecting freshwater resources in the era of global water markets: lessons learned from bottled water,” was published last fall by the University of Denver Water Law Review.

Among the points made in the 53-page paper are that gallon for gallon bottled water requires 2,000 times the energy required by tap water.

He says he is surprised that none of the “big, well-funded environmental groups” have made much of an effort to force the FDA to change its labeling rules.

He says there are three ways the FDA could be forced to make such changes:

• Congress could pass legislation dictating the changes
• The president could instruct the FDA to make the changes, or
• Someone or some group could sue the FDA to force the changes.

Calls and emails to the FDA seeking comment were not returned.

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.